Write on Wednesday – Short Attention Span Theatre – July 11, 2018

Last Sunday I attended (with Laura Ambler and my husband) the Short Attention Span Theatre in Chestertown, Maryland. Performed in the Garfield Center for the Arts,  on Chestertown’s main street, the space used to be a movie theater. Laura spent summers with her grandmother who lived in Chestertown and remembered seeing movies here — sometimes with bats flying in the high ceiling. I saw no bats on Sunday.

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A group of playwrights meets monthly at the Garfield to read each others works and critique them. Here’s a link to more information in case you’re interested in the group. Once a year nine or ten ten-minute plays are selected for production. This is the 14th year for these Short Attention Span Theatre productions. Why did we never get to one before?

During the intermission we smelled popcorn. Laura loves popcorn and went to the concession stand to get some. You could get a beer or a glass of wine but they didn’t have any popcorn. She came back disappointed. We wondered if we were having a folie à deux, the psychiatric term for a shared delusion.  The first ten-minute play after the  intermission had a bowl of popcorn as a prop. Turns out we aren’t as crazy as sometimes we think we are.

We love theater because we always get ideas, and these ten minute plays must be a challenge to write. No time for multiple plot lines. The story is set up right away and moves quickly to the denoument when the threads of the plot are pulled together. Several of the plays relied heavily on physical comedy which also gave us some ideas as what Laura and I write often turns comedic.

We really went to see the show because our writer friend, Brent Lewis, was on the bill. (It was piece of Brent’s writing that I shared on last week’s Wednesday blog post.) His play,  All Over But The Shouting, has only two characters, cranky elderly brothers in a nursing home who think an incoming missile is going to obliterate them in ten minutes. This gives them just a little time to try to resolve every damn argument and misunderstanding before they are blown to bits.

Below are Brent, me, my husband Roger and Laura. Laura’s husband would have been with us but he was flying.

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But I’m really glad we went. Brent’s play was awesome and I know from experience how important it is to have people you know see your work — and like it. Somehow Chestertown, Maryland seems further than going to Baltimore, but it’s not. We need to try harder to see local theater and support all the playwrights, even the ones we don’t know.

Write on Wednesday: Soul: the Stax Musical

Going to the theater is always a treat. For Laura Ambler and for me, it’s also educational. As playwrights we watch to see if there’s something to learn — and there always is.

Sunday afternoon we saw the World Premier of Soul: the Stax Musical by playwright Matthew Benjamin. It was a great show. The narrative arc was the origins and life of Stax Records in Memphis. Stax began as Satellite Records in 1957, founded by Jim Stewart — a banker by day and a country fiddler by night. Stewart had a dream, but no knowledge of the recording industry. With the help of his older sister, Estelle Axton (who mortgaged her house to buy recording equipment for the studio) they set up shop in an abandoned movie theater in Memphis, Tennessee.

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These two white people (who didn’t know that what they were doing was impossible)  launched the careers of of iconic artists—Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, Booker T & The MG’s, Rufus & Carla Thomas, David Porter, Wilson Pickett, Johnny Taylor, and Eddie Floyd—artists who made American Soul Music mainstream. What a great story!

This show had a large cast — twenty people were on stage at the standing ovation curtain call. We were interested to see how that many people were handled as our two plays also have large casts. Many of the performers in this production had multiple stage, tv and film  credits but were having their debut at Center Stage Baltimore. These actors had to be outstanding singers as well as great dancers. The show featured exceptional choreography by Chase Brook. I predict it will be a hit on Broadway and then tour. The music will keep you clapping. See it if you get a chance.

The two plays Laura and I have written were Christmas shows written with Community Theatre in mind. Community Theatre works with limited budgets and local (often exceptional) talent. But these theaters have constraints. Christmas shows are frequently fund raisers so in the case of our first play, The Santa Diaries, anybody who wanted a part got one.  Large casts are great for ticket sales to grandparents, aunts and uncles and next door neighbors, but large casts create staging problems and parts that were written originally for one theater may not work for another.

The idea for our next play has been germinating for a while. It will have just four cast members. We’ll start work on that soon. In the meantime we see as much theater as we can. We have a lot to learn.

 

Write on Wednesday: Damn Those Adverbs

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

― Mark Twain

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I suspect Twain was talking about adverbs – those pesky words that usually often end in ‘ly’.  It’s not that you can’t ever use adverbs, but it can be a mark of a lazy writer. Adverbs, which describe verbs, adjectives or other adverbs are easier to use than showing our readers what we want them to see.

I have been using an editing program called SmartEdit. I saw it reviewed on a writing blog and bought a single user license for around $70. I purchased it last year when I was reviewing my first two novels before sending them for proofing in anticipation of republishing. That project is still in the works, but on track.

SmartEdit was worth the investment. It ranked the adverbs in my writing by the number of times I used them. It allowed me to make corrections/changes on the spot. The program has eleven functions including repetitions, how many times a word or phrase is used, points out cliches and how often a sentence is started the same way. It helped me tighten my writing.

 

This came in today’s mail.

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I opened the envelope and let out a whoop. My new Dramatist Guild member card had arrived. It used to be flimsy cardboard but is now substantial black plastic. The photo makes it look brown, but it’s matt black.  Sophisticated, elegant, understated, almost a clone of a Visa Black Card.

Guild membership is a very big deal. You can only apply to become a member if you have had a play produced for a paying audience. I am exceedingly proud of my membership.

Sorry, Mark, sometimes you just have to use adverbs!

 

 

Write on Wednesday – April 11, 2018

A week ago today Laura Ambler and I met with Julianna Skluzacek, Artistic Director of the Merlin Players in Faribault, Minnesota.

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The Merlin Players produced The Santa Diaries in 2014 and reached out to us about writing another Christmas show for them. Laura came up with the brilliant idea of writing the original cast of characters but five years later.

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We wrote a spec arc in October 2017 and sent it to Julianna.  We began working in earnest on the arc of the play on November.  Julianna put the spec arc before their board and it was accepted as their 2018 Christmas show. Laura and I began writing two or three days a week (for a couple of hours) and by mid January we had a first act. We forwarded it to Julianna just to make sure we were on the same page. She loved it.

Julianna knew she was coming east in the spring and we set a date to meet. On March 5th we sent her the first draft.

When we met last week we read the play out loud. Juliana had a few notes, and some minor suggestions which were easy to fix. Everyone who played the original parts is coming back to reprise the characters. That helped with the writing because we knew the strengths of the actors. One of them hoped there would be another rap song. We had a song but hadn’t thought about making it a rap. Easily done and it made the play better. Julianna said the kid who had played the imaginary Marley dog who was Timmy’s companion hoped he would have a part in the new play. It was a discussion Laura and I had several times and just couldn’t make it work. Julianna had an idea about how to accomplish making sure this character from the first play made it into the second. And it made the play better.

When we were finished we took Julianna to lunch, had a bottle of wine and celebrated. We’ll be going to Minnesota in December to see the premier of A Christmas Wedding, The Santa Diaries 11.

The day after we met with Julianna, Laura and I worked for two hours and made the needed tweaks. The following day I printed out the play again and read it for any necessary typos, etc. Laura fixed those, formatted the script and it was sent off to Julianna.

When I look back on the writing arc of this project I see that steady chunks of time got us to the finish line. Laura and I usually wrote three days a week for about two hours. We quit when our brains weren’t firing on all cylinders. But if we had let this project drift until we were two weeks away from the deadline, we wouldn’t have written the same play. The small changes to dialogue or bits of business for an actor that expanded their character would be missing — those serendipitous ideas that waken you in the middle of the night or while you’re driving.

We are so proud of what we’ve accomplished and can’t wait for December to see it on its feet.

 

 

 

 

 

Six on Saturday – March 10, 2018

It’s a never ending miracle that things in the garden that should, by all rights, be dead, come to life in the Spring.

Usually the forsythia blooms before anything else in mid February. This year it is popping at the same time as the daffodils.

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Below is fennel that I grew last year from seed. When mature it has beautiful bronze foliage. In the fall it finally succumbed (I thought) to killing frosts and then weeks of bitter cold. But it is coming back. It creates something of a problem in terms of my being able to dig that raised bed.  The nearby trees send roots into the beds and if I don’t dig them every spring they become rootbound. The fennel will get set aside while I dig and then replanted.

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I have no idea how this hyacinth got into this particular bed near the hellebores. But it is blooming. You can see chrysanthemums sprouting below the flower.

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A bed of irises. These are a dark blue variety that a friend gave me. I mow my iris beds in the fall with the lawn mower and they don’t seem to mind at all. I do the same thing in the spring with lariope. I occasionally see signs of borers in my iris, but I only keep the ones that don’t seem too bothered. I am a lazy gardener.

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The pink metal birds below mark one edge of two septic tanks that I found when I was putting in garden beds. You can see the little pieces of rebar next to the bird stakes. I used those at first but kept tripping on them. Then I put acid green tennis balls on them. I kind of liked them, but they eventually faded in the sun. Having a stake in the middle of a path is something of a problem. Eventually I’ll get around to moving the stones. I need to know where the septic tank is because there’s not much soil on top of it which is how I found it in the first place when I tried to plant that flowering cherry tree.

Now that I see this photo I realize I need to move the start of the path between the birds. Duh! The sedums are easy to move.

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Another spring miracle. I was repotting agapanthas last fall and had leftovers. A friend had told me that hers were planted outside and usually made it through the winter, so I stuck some in the ground. And they are putting out new growth. The pot I brought inside didn’t bloom this winter. If these bloom this summer, all the agapanthas will get moved outside.

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That’s my six this week. We had more rain so the back garden is still flooded and I can’t work there yet. But this week the rest of the roses in the front of the house were cut back. I’m making progress.

On the Writing Front

The first draft of the play was emailed to the director.  Now I have to get back to my novel which was put on hold for a little while. I couldn’t manage to keep two sets of characters separate. Characters have a way of popping up where you least expect them.  A Hot Dish lady from a Christmas themed play doesn’t belong in a novel set in the Caribbean. Sort of like that pink hyacinth, except it is much more welcome.

 

A Nor’easter Blows Through

High winds early Friday morning woke me up several times. Was that a freight train coming at the house? Nope. A Nor’easter.

Laura Ambler, my writing partner, and I had worked on our play Thursday and she had warned me what was coming. Her day job is in aviation so she’s acutely aware of the weather. And the Nor’easter arrived just as predicted.

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We watched the old silver maples on our property give up some limbs. Nothing very big, but a pick-up-sticks job to be handled. Although we are near the water we didn’t have any flooding like other parts of the east coast. However the rotation of the storm pulled water out of the local rivers and there were some really low tides. We never lost power although we do have a generator back-up. The winds were still roaring Sunday night and another storm is predicted for Wednesday.

Dancing Santa

The weather didn’t keep Laura and me from writing. Our play, commissioned by The Merlin Players in Faribault, Minnesota, is almost finished. We will be able to send it to Artistic Director,  Julianna Skluzacek, by the end of next week. We sent our ideas to Julianna in early October 2017 and began work in earnest on January 6, 2018. We have worked two to four days a week since then. Sometimes with our cell phones on speaker when Laura was in Florida on business. Usually we worked for two hours or a little more before our brains went on strike. Much of the time at the beginning is asking questions. What is the play about? What would happen if this character did x, y or z? What conflict would that generate? Does a scene further the arc of the story?

Since the play is about the same characters in The Santa Diaries (five years later), we had the luxury of knowing who would be playing some of the parts as actors who had played characters several years ago wanted to have those parts again. That meant we could write to an actor’s strengths. I’m very visual. It helped to know what a character looked like.

In the Rest of My Life

We’ve had a worrisome two weeks as my beloved daughter-in-law was in the hospital with post-flu viral pneumonia. She spent a week on a ventilator. Most of the time I’m just fine with my kids living on the other side of the country, but when something like this happens I sure wish we were closer. Janet is now home and recuperating. I spent alot of time knitting to keep my anxiety under control.

The weather has kept me from the gardens but I went out yesterday while dinner was heating on the stove and took some photos. The Hellebores are blooming, but I haven’t had time to get the winter damaged leaves pulled out yet. And it’s still too wet and a little early to do an all in clean-up. I like leaving leaf mulch around the perennials until the evening temps moderate.

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Columbines and tiny lamb’s ears are emerging through the leaf mulch.

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My agenda for today, Sunday, March 4, 2018.

  1. Plant some seeds using the soil blocking method. My efforts to start some seeds inside in a bio-dome are not going so well.
  2. Read the 90 page play script to see what tweaks are needed. Laura and I are scheduled to work early tomorrow morning before she has to go to her office.
  3. Help my husband pick up sticks on the lawn.
  4. Poach a chicken so there will be protein in the fridge for the coming week.
  5. Make red onion refrigerator pickles.
  6. Do laundry. We are out of socks.

Wow. That’s a long list. I’m thinking some of these items may get pushed to tomorrow afternoon. But the play work will get done…and the laundry. We need those socks.